Adapting a novella for the stage presents many difficulties, but character should not be one of them. (Especially not with Herman Melville, a classic literary portraitist.) Perhaps the playwright, R.L. Lane, simply assumes we are all familiar with the subject material: Bartleby the Scrivener’s sad tale of Wall Street copyists in the mid-nineteenth century. Or perhaps he simply “prefers” the company of more definable characters: the bright and boisterous stereotypes of fellow clerks Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut. Either way, Standard, the chief scrivener (and the lead) winds up a mess, Bartleby steals the show, and the theatrical experience is riveting, if not exactly exhilarating.
Gerry Bamman (Standard) should have no trouble finding the subtle anguish of this role (he’s done Chekhov), and yet his character is static and inflexible. Overacting is an understatement here: the problem is that Bamman doesn’t seem to realize he’s playing two different roles. He is Standard the character and Standard the narrator: one must grow, and the other must speak from experience. Instead, Melville’s rich and tortured narrative rolls trippingly off the tongue only to fall flat on its face. The two Standards are so jumbled together, neither has impact, just the atonal pitch of melodrama.
Marco Quaglia, as Bartleby, is a captivating performer and one in complete control of his body. Be it his rigid posture, lethargic shuffle or downcast glare—he fills the stage with discomfort . . . and pleasure. As if he’s some sort of Elephant Man freak-show (there’s a role for Quaglia), the director, Alessandro Fabrizi, bruises him with the perfect blend of illumination and shadow. Then again, Fabrizi also stashes Bartleby behind a wall—this choice, after describing him as a living cadaver who haunts Standard, seems a bit naïve.
And yet, Lane and Fabrizi manage to capture the gloomy essence of Bartleby. Though this is a Cliff Notes version—straight to the point, and even the stage is spare (but with good effect)—it works. Some scenes even justify what is otherwise a superfluous adaptation. Take for instance the office’s attempt to cheer up Bartleby: their efforts are at first individually comedic, but on the whole become forcefully awkward. They simply don’t understand the man: That’s the point. Fabrizi, who works beautifully with subtle and minimalist elements (note: the awful musical selections are neither), lets this failure linger in the air: a living, breathing, silence.
And while that moment may be repeated (milked is perhaps the word), it never quite becomes boring theater—though neither does it become great theater. No, what it may be, despite an antiquated feel, is real theater: touching yet not exciting, or (since that’s not wholly true) thrilling, but on another level. “Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity!” That final haunting line is still a dagger to the heart.
Blue Heron Theater
123 East 24th Street
Tickets: $19.00 (212-868-4444)
Wednesday-Saturday @ 8:00; Saturday @ 3:00 (Closing November 27th)
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.